There's a pivotal juncture in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword where Charlie Hunnam's Arthur steps up to the hallowed rock, but the moment isn't all it should be. It isn't an abrupt music cue or a hoaky special effect - it's a cameo. Everything grinds to a halt as an ex-footballer does his best to muddle through his lines. It's not as bad as you may have been led to believe and it doesn't last very long. However, the scene serves as a metaphor for Guy Ritchie's awkwardly swaggering direction that persistently draws attention to itself and away from the legendary tale.
Surely getting an Englishman to retool the fabled tale of Excalibur is a no-brainer, particularly after the dynamism he brought to Sherlock Holmes. The opener is an unapologetic introduction to the mythos; like Lord of the Rings on steroids. Giant elephants carry structures holding savage marauders and an evil wizard, which lay waste to Camelot. It's a little jarring to turn the fantasy dial up to 11 in the first few moments, rather than ease you in with a magical sword, a talking owl or maybe even a wizard to explain things first. While the prologue does set the mechanics for Arthur's world, it just seems a little louder than it needs to be.
Once Arthur is robbed of his birthright by his evil uncle (Jude Law) and sent down the river to Londinium and taken in by honest-to-goodness prostitutes, it really doesn't take long before the director goes Full-Tilt-Ritchie. Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels established Ritchie as the baron of banter. Even in the overly complicated narrative of Snatch, exchanges remained endlessly quotable, but Ritchie seems hellbent on grafting the cockney-cadence into a setting it just doesn't belong. Terms like "Kung Fu George" clash harder than sword and shield in a world that has mages, enchanted weapons and giant bats. A Knight's Tale pulled off the trick of wedging modern day monikers and songs into a ye olde tale because it didn't take itself too seriously, but the themes in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword demand a serious and less self-conscious touch.
Credit where it's due, Ritchie is no slouch when it comes to framing and editing. The movie is littered with gorgeous imagery and even some original flourishes that put you right in the moment. Yet, just like the dialogue, there are moments when it's overcooked. Arthur's coming-of-age montage is a kinetic rhythm of lessons learned and studious ascent, but with the struggle on fast forward it offers little connection. The same can be said for Arthur's trial where we get shown a highlight reel of the giant beasties that leave him battered and bruised, but the lack of investment only offers a hollow victory.
If that weren't enough to upset this legendary apple cart, Ritchie also meshes his traits most at odds with this yarn. If not quite so contrived and perhaps in another setting, a clever staging of narrative to play the exposition along with the plan it's explaining can inject some originality into the proceedings. However, it seems as pleased with itself as the character delivering the commentary. It's all a little smug, like an overconfident swindler. Even with Jude Law's best efforts to keep the horse from bolting as the power-drunk villain and a visceral soundtrack by Dan Pemberton, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword just continually draws undue attention to itself.
2* - Stone Block And Two Smoking Arrows